Climate rights of children: updating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is consulting children worldwide

Woman cycling with children

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is presently conducting an online consultation among children and young people (17 and under) to share their views and experiences on the environment and climate change. The aim is to find out how children’s rights are impacted by the environmental crisis and what governments must do to uphold these rights. Julie Fraser, Assistant Professor with the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) at Utrecht University, welcomes the initiative. "International human rights law has been slow to respond to the climate crisis. It was only in October 2021 that the UN Human Rights Council recognised the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. As such, this initiative to explore and explain the links between children’s rights and the environment is urgently needed – and long overdue."

The Committee is a body of independent experts from around the world who monitor implementation by states of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that was agreed in 1989. "At that time, there was not as much environmental awareness or science on climate change, and so the environment does not feature greatly in the Convention. However, today we know the huge importance of the environment for the enjoyment of all human rights, and particularly children’s rights", says Fraser. The process will result in a so-called General Comment, a set of recommendations that must aid states to implement domestically their international legal obligations relating to children’s rights and climate change.

Walking the talk

According to Fraser, the Committee’s consultation process is noteworthy as it puts a number of Convention rights into practice. "The Committee is ‘walking the talk’ of children’s rights. For example, the Convention positions children of all ages as rights-holders able of advocating their views and not just needing ‘special protection’ by adults. I think that the consultation process is an excellent way for the Committee to get insights from children, but also for children to learn about their rights." 

The Committee has also established an advisory team that comprises children. This team includes activists like Chiara Sacchi, who earlier – together with others from several countries – brought a complaint before the Committee against Argentina, regarding harms they suffered due to climate change. While the Committee decided the complaint was inadmissible (for failure to exhaust domestic remedies), it recognised that states have extraterritorial jurisdiction over children harmed by emissions on their territory.

The online questionnaire is open to children and young people until 30 June 2022. "However, it is only available currently in English, French, and Spanish, which makes it inaccessible to millions of children speaking other official UN languages such as Chinese and Arabic. As an online campaign, it is also only accessible for children with internet access", says Fraser. 

I have high expectations for this General Comment. It is a vital opportunity for the Committee on the Rights of the Child to help bridge the conceptual and legal divisions between human rights law and the environment.

Portrait Julie Fraser
Julie Fraser about the outcome of the Committee's consultation trajectory

Finalisation scheduled for 2023

The UN Committee will take the results of the questionnaire and other submissions into consideration in drafting the General Comment. A ‘child-friendly’ version of the general comment will also be produced and further input and feedback sought from children. This draft will then be further debated in workshops and refined, before being finalised and launched in 2023.

Julie Fraser has high expectations. "It is a vital opportunity for the Committee on the Rights of the Child to help bridge the conceptual and legal divisions between human rights law and the environment. The Committee has already contributed to this, for example in its Sacchi et al v. Argentina et al decision last year. Challenging questions remain for the Committee to address: regarding the rights of future generations and inter-generational equity, and state obligations for international cooperation, which is essential when addressing a global problem like climate change. I am also eager to see if (and how) the Committee engages with the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on the right to clean, safe and sustainable environment and its potential relationship with the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

See the UN Human Rights Office website for more information, including the concept note of General Comment nr. 26

Julie Fraser is Assistant Professor with the Netherlands Insitute of Human Rights (SIM) and the Montaigne Centre for Rule of Law and Administration of Justice at Utrecht University. She was awarded the Max van der Stoel Human Rights Award in 2019 for her dissertation, published as a monograph by Cambridge University Press in 2020: 'Social Institutions and International Human Rights Law Implementation: 'Every Organ of Society'. She is an expert in human rights law and international criminal law.